Pulte Mortgage Corp., one of the few companies to heed the industry's call to tap international markets, is trying to use economic inequity in one of those markets, Mexico, to its advantage.
The 1995 collapse of the peso, combined with inflation and other economic turbulence, retarded development of Mexico's mortgage market, several observers said. Pulte Mortgage, an Englewood, Colo., subsidiary of Pulte Corp., "looked at what financing was available and realized that the market in Mexico was underdeveloped for its needs," said Robert Pastore, president of the $283 million-asset mortgage unit.
In 1995 Pulte Mortgage took a 23% stake in Hipotecaria Su Casita, a Mexico City mortgage firm. Another Pulte Corp. division, Pulte Homes, the second-largest builder in the United States, had started operations in Mexico in 1994 and is now that country's fifth-largest builder.
Executives say Pulte Mortgages is taking advantage of conditions that make it hard for the average Mexican to obtain a reasonable mortgage and a decent home - by U.S. standards. Mexico's economy has been growing since 1995, but it is mainly the rich who have benefited, these observers said. They continue to have access to loans from national and international banks that routinely turn down middle-class applicants or offer loans with outrageously high interest rates and huge down payments. For lower-income people, owning a home is nearly impossible.
Pulte Mortgage realized that the only way to sell homes was to beef up the mortgage market, said Mr. Pastore, who is on the Su Casita board. Pulte Homes builds housing that costs $8,000 to $18,000 per unit, while Pulte Mortgages finances the purchases through Su Casita. Many of these homes are built for the employees of American companies that operate plants in Mexico, officials said, such as DaimlerChrysler.
Tiny by average American standards, and made of concrete, the homes Pulte builds in Mexico do not come with appliances or carpeting but are cheap and easy to expand. Pulte Homes plans to build around 10,000 of them this year in several regions in Mexico.
One of the biggest hurdles to housing stability in Mexico is the lack of a secondary market, said Scott H. Campbell, vice president of equity research at Raymond James in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"That is a huge hindrance to affordability," Mr. Campbell said. "Pulte is trying to open up research and a secondary mortgage market by increasing liquidity - enabling more people to own a home."
Gene Towle, managing partner of Softec, a real estate consultancy in Mexico City, and also a member of Su Casita's board, said Pulte is helping to meet strong but largely ignored demand in Mexico for homes and mortgages. Fewer than 800,000 homes were built there last year, and of those less than 320,000 were financed through a mortgage, he said.
Though economic setbacks in America have caused some U.S. companies to cut back production at their Mexican plants, many do not believe it will affect the Mexican mortgage market.
"The perception here is that when the U.S. sneezes, we get pneumonia down here," Mr. Towle said. Though Mexico is preparing for the worst, the demand for mortgages there is so great that any further U.S. economic downturn should do little damage if any, said.
Pulte Mortgages says it has no plans at the moment to expand to other Latin American countries, though the experience in Mexico encouraged Pulte Homes, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to set up operations in South America; it announced in December that it would enter the Argentine market. The mortgage subsidiary is studying that market and advising Pulte Homes.